I was a coward.
A self-righteous one at that. And for what? It didn’t matter anymore because after tonight, Asher Creed was bound to never speak to me again.
The headlights from the oncoming cars were burning my tired eyes and I just wanted to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come.
Mark was driving, thankfully, so I rested my head against the cold window and stared into the darkness. I knew I shouldn’t have left the way that I did, but I just couldn’t face Asher again. My heart hurt and I knew it was over.
After mine and Asher’s talk, I went and grabbed a beer and hid from him. I saw him come downstairs, searching for something, or rather someone, and knew it was me. Once everyone was asleep, I came out of my hiding place, snuck into Asher’s room to grab my things, and woke Mark from a dead sleep. Now we were headed back to the city. Back to our lives.
And I was a giant coward for it.
“You okay?” Mark’s voice broke me from my thoughts as I sat up and stretched.
“Fine. I just want to get home.”
“You want to tell me why we’re leaving in the middle of the night without your lover boy?”
I groaned, “No, I really don’t....”
“Well, I’m here when you’re ready.” He stopped talking then and just kept driving.
I didn’t remember falling asleep, but clearly I had when I woke to Mark gently shaking me awake and after blinking a few times, I saw that we were in front of the apartment building.
I left my luggage in the car and headed inside. My bed was all I wanted right now, but when I threw myself onto the fluffy comforter I got a whiff of sandalwood and nearly lost it. I whimpered and buried my face into my pillow and cried.
What have I done?!
After my bout of crying I sat up and pulled my phone from my pocket and it was at this moment that I realized I never got Asher’s number. We were so busy with being in the moment this last weekend that we never exchanged personal information and maybe this was a sign that I needed to let it go and move on with my life.
But as I continued to lay there, all I could think about was Asher. He would wake up in the morning and see that I had left. Would he care? Would he come looking for me? Would he track my number down? Or, would he just go home to California and move on like I had told him to?
That night and several more came and went and not a single word from Asher and he never came looking for me. The days seemed to blur together and things that brought joy to my daily life were no longer joyous. The only good thing about my days was that I wasn’t alone. Mark was off on his next adventure and had been gone the past few days which has totally been fine with me. When he was around, he was always asking why I had left in the middle of the night, if I’d heard from Asher, and what happened. Things I didn’t have the answers to.
Tate and Harper were back from their short and sweet honeymoon, his work had a hard time letting him be gone for too long, and she had tried to call me. I didn’t have the heart or the strength to talk to her right now. I sent her a few texts apologizing for not answering her calls and that I was swamped with work, which was a lie obviously, but she didn’t need to know that.
I had no idea if she knew about me and Asher or not. If she had spoken to her mom lately she would probably know, but if she had heard from Asher he probably wouldn’t have said anything. I still can’t help but wonder what he’s thinking about right now. Did he miss me? Was he wondering what all went wrong? Was he thinking up a plan to get me back?
Shit, knowing Asher Creed, he was probably back into his normal groove and not thinking about me one bit. If he was upset with me over leaving that night then he was definitely not thinking about me.
Why can’t I just get him out of my head? Out of my heart?!
A loud knock boomed through the apartment, making me nearly jump out of my skin. It couldn’t be Mark, he was still in Spain for a few more days and Harper wouldn’t be in the city this weekend, so who could it be?
I set my wine down and went to answer the door, but when I opened it, there was nobody standing there. I stuck my head out into the hallway and looked both ways but it was empty. What the hell? And just when I was about to shut the door, I looked down and saw a yellow envelope on the floor. I quickly grabbed it and shut the door behind me before I locked it up tight and headed back into the living room.
I sat back down on the couch and tore into the envelope. Where did this come from? And who would just leave an envelope at my door? Weird.
I pulled out the contents and saw a few photo’s in my hands. The top one was of me and Asher, dancing at the wedding, a smile of pure happiness spread across my lips. I had to quickly flip that one upside down on my coffee table. Seeing Asher with his arms wrapped tightly around me, staring down into my face with a small smile, hurt too much.
The next photo was of me standing on the deck of the cabin staring out toward the woods, but the photo was taken from the woods, obviously by my creeper. My heart dropped into my stomach as I quickly flipped through the other photos. They were all of me at the cabin, some with Asher and the others all taken from afar.
My hands began to shake and I felt like throwing up. Hot tears began to flood my eyes as I blinked them away. I quickly grabbed my phone with intentions to call Asher but cursing when I realized I don’t have his number. So I hovered over Mark’s name and hit dial. It rang and rang and rang and finally his voicemail picked up, but I ended the call, not wanting to leave a frantic message for him to hear later.
I thought about calling the cops, but what would they do for me? A random person left photos of me at my front door; the front door of an apartment building that didn’t have security cameras set up. Fuck.
Now I wished I weren’t alone.
The photos were spread out in front of me on the coffee table and I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable here all alone, but did I dare try to leave? What if he was still out there? Waiting for me in the shadows.
That thought alone was enough to bring up the bottle of wine I nursed all day. I ran to the kitchen sink and got sick. My nerves were fried and my eyes were swollen from crying myself to sleep all week.
I stood there shaking with fear, not sure what my next move should be. The sun had set an hour ago and the moonlight was greeting me through the small window in front of me. I’m just thankful that I live eight stories up and my stalker couldn’t see me. At least I hoped like hell that he couldn’t. This thought obviously kicked me into overdrive as I ran around the apartment shutting all the curtains.
Then I stood stalk still in my living room, my head spinning from the wine and my own adrenaline, and knew I needed to sleep. Come tomorrow morning, when I could think more clearly, was when I’d figure out what to do. Until then, I needed to pop an aspirin so I didn’t have a hangover in the morning, and then go to bed.
My alarm woke me from a dead sleep at exactly 6 am, the same time I got up for work every morning, but today felt different than the other mornings. Today, I knew I had a stalker that followed me home from the cabin and now knew where I lived.
Unsettling feelings of anxiety tore through my stomach as I tried to get ready for work and when I was about to head out the front door, my phone rang. Mark’s face flashed across the screen and I couldn’t answer it fast enough.
“Layla! What’s wrong? Is everything alright?” He sounded panicked, just how I felt.
“The creeper from the woods. He followed us. He was here.” I was nearly out of breath as I spoke as calmly as I could.
“What?!” He was frantic, shouting in my ear. “What do you mean he was there?! Are you hurt? Did he get in? Layla!”
“I’m-I’m fine, Mark. Just really afraid. He left photo’s of me from the cabin at our front door. Photos that were clearly taken from afar.” I took a deep breath, biting my quivering bottom lip. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m coming home,” his voice was urgent.
“What about your job? Won’t your agent be angry if you leave early?”
“Fuck my agent. You could be in serious danger, Layla! I’ll get a flight out right away and be home tonight. Can you go some place safe after work until I get there?”
“Define safe. I don’t know where to go.” My purse was getting heavy on my arm so I set it down. “I can probably just stay at work until you get back...”
“Fine. Do what you have to to stay safe and in a public place. Just don’t be alone, okay?” Then he took a deep breath. “Does Asher know about this?”
I shook my head, holding the tears back, then finally replied softly, “I haven’t spoken to him.”
He sighed. “You should call and tell him about it. He’d be angry if he knew you hid this from him and something bad happened to you.”
I let out a stressed laugh. “What does it matter if I tell him or not, Mark? He’s two states away.”
“Because maybe he can help. He knows more about this stalker guy than I do.” Mark spoke to someone quietly then came back on the line. “I’ll be home as soon as I can. Call him, Layla.”
The line went dead then and I stared at the door. I should probably tell Asher right? But how did I start that conversation? Oh, hey, sorry for leaving in the middle of the night and not saying goodbye to you, but you should know that the stalker guy from the woods has followed me home. How was he going to help anyways? Did he even care to help?
I looked at the time, and if I didn’t get a move on it, I was going to be late and the boss was going to be furious. So I took a deep breath and left my apartment, locking it up tight behind me, before I turned and nearly ran to the elevators that would take me to my car in the parking garage. I just prayed that the parking lot attendant was in the booth this morning because he would be able to see me walk from the elevators to my car, and I knew I’d have to tell him what was going on so that I would always have an escort here at home at least. I’d deal with the security issue at work when I got there this morning.
After telling the parking lot attendant what was going on, he was happy to walk me to and from my car every day and would let the other attendants know the scoop as well. Traffic was thankfully light as I made my way downtown and under the building in our private parking lot. The attendant booth was empty and my heart started to beat faster as I drove in, but thank God there was a spot open just a few spots from the elevators and I couldn’t park there fast enough.
I finally felt a bit better once I made it onto the elevator and began my ascent up to my floor. So far so good.
But when I got into my office I barely set my purse down and turned my computer on when Tyler, my boss, came barreling into my office.
“How was your weekend off? I hope it was enjoyable because we’re swamped and I’m dying to know who you found for that modeling gig we have coming up, let me remind you, next week!!!” He sounded frantic and clearly not at all happy for allowing me to take this last weekend off. He hadn’t been in the office the whole week so this was the first time he was seeing me since I’ve been back.
“My weekend was fine. I did some searching this week, but I don’t think you’ll like them.” I booted up my software on the computer, clicked on the few models I found, and spun the screen toward Tyler.
He studied the screen for a while before he glared at me.
“Who the hell are these people? I told you to find a face people already knew! These fucks look like they just started modeling right out of ‘mommy-and-daddy-are-paying-for-this’ modeling school.” He cocked an eyebrow at me. “You’re better than this, Layla.” He turned on his heel and stormed out of my office, slamming the door behind him.
I let out a breath and stared at the screen in front of me. This is the last thing I need to be stressing over, but I knew if I didn’t pull this off, Tyler would demote my ass.
Mark had sent me a text just after Tyler stormed out of my office telling me he got a flight and would be home around 7 pm. I definitely didn’t want to be at work that late, but I wasn’t about to go home alone and sit and wait for him. So I would find stuff to keep me busy.
I ate my lunch in my office, still shuffling through the hundreds of models we had and putting some profiles together to see if Tyler wanted any of them for the new campaign, but I secretly knew he wouldn’t. I just needed to make it look like I was doing something.
Then my office door flew open and Tyler came in with a giant grin on his face.
“Why does your smile make me nervous?” I asked, leaning back in my chair as I studied his actions.
“Because you’re going to tell me that you found a model to use.” He nodded toward my computer. “Show me the lucky guy.”
“Guy?” Shit, I didn’t think he wanted strictly a male model, there goes half the models from the list that I just put together. “Don’t be upset...” I winced as I turned my screen around to him.
He looked at the faces again and then scowled at me. “You’re lucky you have a boss that loves you.”
“What does that mean?” I whispered, staring up into his stone features, he wasn’t giving me any indication on how he was feeling. Was he angry with me? Still giving me a chance?
He tossed a folder onto my desk. “That’s the guy I want. Make it happen, Layla, or you can start packing up your office right now.”
I leaned forward and pulled a glossy photo from the envelope and nearly panicked when I saw who was in the photo.
“You’re joking right?” My mouth went dry as I threw the photo down onto my desk. “Asher Creed is nearly impossible to even get an interview with and you want me to get him to agree to an entire campaign?” I snorted, shaking my head.
Tyler leaned onto my desk, staring me right in the eyes. “Either you get Asher Creed to agree to this or you find yourself a new job.”
I swallowed, my heart pounding, and my hands shaking as I stared up at Tyler.
I licked my lips and replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Tyler grinned and winked, standing up and straightening his suit. “Call his manager, set up a meeting, and when you get a meeting with him, use those charms I know you have, Layla. You’re a stunningly beautiful woman. Sleep with the man if you have to, but make sure Mr. Creed is in our warehouse next Monday morning.”
He wasted no time turning on his heel as he walked out of my office, slamming the door behind him.
I grabbed the photo once more and stared at Asher’s face. How am I going to pull this off? Would his manager even agree to a meeting with me? Would Asher even want to see me? Of course I didn’t have to tell him it was me coming.
I flipped the photo over and found his manager’s contact information on the back and picked up my office phone to make this damning phone call.
My heart pounded so hard that I could hear the beat in my head over the ringing in my ear.
“This is Tristan, speak.”
I swallowed, feeling my nerves trying to over take me.
“Hello?” He sounded annoyed that nobody had replied to his first greeting.
“Hello, Mr. Barry? My name is Layla. I’m a talent agent for Blakely Management, and Mr. Blakely is interested in Mr. Creed for our new campaign. Would Mr. Creed have any time to meet with me this week?” I spit it out like I always did, but afterwards I nearly passed out from the blood rushing to my head.
“Blakely? Hell, I haven’t seen Tyler in ages. Tell that son of a bitch he still owes me twenty bucks,” he laughed. “That matter aside, I can get you in with Asher tomorrow at 11 am. Does that work?”
Tomorrow?! I was thrilled that he was available, but tomorrow?!
“Yes, thank you very much. I look forward to meeting with you both.” I hung up the phone as quickly as I could and took several deep breaths to calm my hyperventilating.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow I would be seeing Asher Creed again. Would he kick me out? Would he yell at me? Do I shake his hand when I see him? Hug him? Oh, jeez! I am a mess.
I know Tyler will be thrilled, but he’ll be even more thrilled when he sees that I not only got a meeting with Asher tomorrow, but I also found my own flight down to San Clemente and prepped everything this evening before I left. Which would be easy since I wouldn’t be leaving here until 7 pm when Mark tells me he’s home.
I found a flight down, got everything prepped, and was about to grab some more coffee to keep me awake until 7 when the janitor lightly knocked on my door.
“Late night, Ms. Stanford?” He smiled warmly at me.
I smiled back. “You know it. Has everyone gone home?”
He nodded. “You’re the last one here, but... well, I have some guys coming to do some work per Mr. Blakely’s request and the company doesn’t work nights like me. Are, are you going to be working much later?”
It was clear that he was asking if I could leave and I definitely didn’t want to get him in trouble with Tyler. If that company doesn’t get the work he wants done when it was planned, it will be the janitor’s ass and no one elses. But that meant I had to leave. And it’s not 7 pm yet.
I swallowed and finally nodded. “Yeah, I can be out of here in ten minutes. Does that work?”
He grinned and nodded. “Oh, thank you very much. I’m so sorry to ask you but...”
I held up my hand. “I completely understand. No worries.”
The janitor left and I turned back to my computer to shut things down for the night and grab my purse. Maybe the janitor will walk me to my car, but when I went in search for him, he was no where to be found and the company coming to do work were already piling in with their tools, looking at me strangely.
Oh, for fuck’s sake, Layla, you’re parked right by the elevator. I can do this. I’m a big girl. I’ll just run to my car and go to a crowded restaurant and wait for Mark to land.
But as I stood in the elevator as it descended to the parking garage, my heart nearly pounded out of my chest. If my floor was cleared out, that meant all the other floors had gone home for the night as well, which meant there would be nobody around. Fuck.
The elevator dinged as the doors slid open and the cool night air hit me right in the face as I pushed my back against the far wall and stared out into the poorly lit parking garage. You’d think with the amount of money these companies made in this building, they’d at least have a properly lit fucking parking garage! My nerves were spiking and taking over, the fear inside me was about to burst free.
The doors went to slide shut but I quickly jumped forward and slipped out, the doors closing right behind me. Now I was standing in the parking garage all alone, no soul in sight, and if I screamed would anyone hear me?
I grabbed my keys from the front pocket of my purse and saw my car in front of me, basically the only car left in the whole place except for the workers on my level and the few janitors that cleaned the building at night. My feet picked up their pace as I got closer and closer to my car.
As I rounded the back end of my car, I saw movement out the corner of my eyes and nearly screamed, but my throat was dry and the fear held my throat tightly closed.
The movement was a man and he was coming toward me. I turned to my door and tried to unlock it, but my fingers were shaking too much to hit the right button and then I dropped them.
Then the man was behind me, grabbing me and slamming me against the side of my car as I screamed out. He turned me to face him, his face covered by a black ski mask, but his eyes were unmistakable. As he grabbed me around the throat, he slammed me against my car once more, getting real close to my face as I tried to stay as calm as I could.
He whispered into my ear, “I’ve been watching you, Laylaaa," he drawled out my name and it made me cringe. “I see you’ve been keeping this ass of yours real tight.” He reached around with his other hand and grabbed my ass, squeezing hard.
I whimpered out, tears streaming down my face, as pure fear coursed through me. My body felt cold and I couldn’t help but wonder what this man was about to do to me.
“P-please, what do you want?” I croaked out, my voice shaky, and full of emotions.
“Isn’t it obvious?” The man whispered into my ear again, this time he leaned forward and bit my jaw before he kissed my cheek. I cried out a sob, closing my eyes as my running mascara burned them. “I’ll be coming for you real soon, baby-girl.”
His fingers were digging so hard into my neck that I could scarcely breathe, nearly coughing. He released me and ran into the shadows, back in the direction he came from, but I didn’t watch where he went as I dropped to my knees right there next to my car and sobbed uncontrollably. All I could think about were the last words he said to me, I’ll be coming for you real soon, baby-girl.